Enniskillen actor Ciaran McMenamin talks 'drugs and the dance scene' in his debut novel
These are exciting times for Enniskillen actor Ciaran McMenamin, with his first book out and getting married this month
Ciaran McMenamin's nervousness on reading from his soul-baring first novel is worse than any stage-fright he has experienced in his 20-year acting career. The Enniskillen-born stage and screen actor, and star of the TV films David Copperfield and Saving The Titanic, has no need to worry.
Skintown - so called after his hometown - is being heralded as the BIG debut from Transworld publishers for spring/summer 2017, and is being hailed as the new Trainspotting. (Personally, I found some of the hilarious dialogue reminiscent of John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson's blether in Pulp Fiction - comedy gold).
Set in the "summer of love" post-ceasefire rave scene of 1994 (the famous Portrush nightclub Kelly's plays a central role, under a different name), Skintown's film rights have been snapped up by the leading Irish production company, Blinder Films, and the novel is attracting rave reviews from the likes of Roddy Doyle, Carlo Gebler and Ken Bruen.
Yet, the readings and interviews the author is obliged to do for his publishers have him all of a quiver.
"I'm very proud of the novel, and it's great having created something rather than channeling someone else's words, but it is nerve-wracking to put yourself out there to that kind of degree," he admits.
"I didn't tell many people I was writing it, thinking they'd roll their eyes and go, 'Not another actor trying to write', but I got a grant to go to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamakerrig to work on it. Martin Lynch was there and when I told him and some others there, they were really encouraging and supportive. That really helped my confidence in it."
We're having tea in the Europa, half-way through a hectic day of TV and radio promotions for Skintown, "a supercharged riot of a debut novel, zinging with confidence and intelligence," according to writer Joseph O'Connor.
The book will appeal particularly to anyone who entered adulthood in the mid 1990s. Ciaran has an exuberant style which vividly captures the wildness of of the 90s rave culture, the strength of the bond of first friendships and the ever-present background of violence in those days before the Good Friday Agreement.
Twenty years on, at 41, the fair-haired author and actor has barely aged. He resembles a large toddler with big muscles, his baby-face at odds with his tall, strong stature. He has retained a soft Fermanagh accent, despite living in London for 17 years and studying acting in Glasgow before that, and admits he'd come back home "in a heartbeat".
"I've had enough of London - it's the people - and I'm getting out of it very soon," he whispers, thrusting out his chunky arms to rejoice. "My missus is English so we've compromised on Hastings. I can't wait."
The "missus" is Annabel Scholey, the Yorkshire-born actress who has starred in the big-budget 2016 saga, Medici: Masters of Florence, and the TV series Being Human. The couple are getting married this month on the scenic Lusty Beg island in Fermanagh.
"I went ahead and booked it before Annabel even saw it," he says, smiling at my surprise. "Yeah, I know - but she said, 'You know my taste' and when I brought her there, she loved it. It's going to be great."
He denies that Annabel is the inspiration for Mia, the Betty Boo lookalike love-interest of Skintown's semi-autobiographical protagonist Vinny, a clever, potty-mouthed, beer-swilling 18-year-old who takes ecstasy for the first time and thinks he's gone to heaven. But he admits to sharing Vinny's "thing for" the former newsreader Moira Stuart. (His secret crush, incidentally, is another broadcaster, Emily Maitlis).
"I've just always liked girls with bob hairstyles," he explains with a smirk. "Mia's an amalgamation of various past girlfriends, I suppose. And Moira, she has this sort of maternal authority that appealed to me. And nice eyes."
A voracious reader all his life, he's a major fan of Ernest Hemingway and writes in short, sharp sentences, brilliantly capturing the general Northern Irish vernacular and its rhythm and wit, which has survived the editing process intact and produces many laugh-out-loud moments. (Vinny's friend is in a band called Fudgegrinder and he gets the "scitters" after too much Chinese takeaway, and so on).
The unique Norn Iron style, however, led initially to some rejections from UK publishing houses.
"I don't know how many; my agent filters them!" he laughs. "But Doubleday were quick off the mark. I think we have a unique wit and I really wanted to capture the way we speak. I think we've been under-represented and I really hope people from here enjoy the book.
"I'm really happy with the response so far; two women journalists already today said their husbands want to read it after them."
He has also been influenced greatly by his uncle JP McMenamin, the witty Tyrone writer who was known as the resident poet on the late Gerry Anderson's radio show.
"I don't think I'd have even attempted writing a novel if it weren't for JP," he says, fondly. "One of his stories, about a pub crawl in a small town, was a huge inspiration. He's a brilliant writer."
He admits to having "done all the necessary research" for his depiction of Vinny's pill popping, having partied his way through the mid 1990s in Belfast, and Portrush, and agrees that the rave scene brought different religions together and transcended sectarianism.
"In my experience, it was a middle-class thing," he recalls. "I'm not sure if that's exactly how I could describe my background - mum was a nurse and dad was a joiner. Lower middle class; upper working class, maybe?
"You did get to meet people at raves you'd never normally meet. And there was a genuine feeling of hope after that first ceasefire was announced in 1994. E's and the dance scene were as much a part of reconciliation as anything else for us.
"The music was a big part of it," he adds. "I played bad guitar back then and sang in a band, and to me, the original rave music was just hard-core noise, but it got better and the indie bands then were brilliant. I was the typical Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays fan at the raves. Music is one of the characters in the book."
Skintown's not all a blissed-out love-in, however. There are some vividly written violent scenes and pathos, including pointed references to suicide and the sexual abuse of young men by clerics, a fact Ciaran was well aware of during his school days in Enniskillen.
Also, he warns me that the story gets very dark in the last third (I've read, voraciously, the first two thirds when we meet, and can't wait to find out after the drug deal point I've left it on) and confirms that Vinny's frightening encounter with two drunk loyalist "lunatics", at the beginning of the novel, is based on a real life experience from his teens.
"I was asked by this girl outside a chip shop one night to pretend to be her boyfriend so she could get a lift home safely with these two hard-men," he remembers. "It's fair to say, they wished me harm, but after they dropped her off, they crashed the car and we ended up going for a few pints together and became friends.
"I never forgot that incident - I think it's a good microcosm of what went on here. All that bigotry and hatred gone in an instant in a car crash. I wrote a short story based on it, and eventually developed it into the novel. I never meant for it to be a film but got talked into it by a director I know, Kieron J Walsh. We're writing the script over the summer."
He has a few well-known actors in mind for the older characters in the film, including Vinny's dry, font-of-wisdom father, but needs to find a young Northern Irish actor to play the 18-year-old Vinny.
In the meantime, he's working on a second book, a historical novel (he's a history buff), set in Ireland and France in the 1920s.
"I'm at a juncture at the minute," he concludes. "I love writing and I'm happy to do this for the time being. But I love acting too, so never say never. That would be stupid."
- Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin, Doubleday, £12.99